Posts Tagged ‘Clausewitz’

Well, twelve questions really, but the if you have a classroom with sliding chalkboards, as I did, you can hide the last two until you’re ready to reveal them. Currently taking a break at #AHA2015, and decided to take advantage of some down time to get this post out.

This was probably my favorite and most successful lesson from HI301 this past semester. We devote eight lessons to Napoleon and the wars of the French Revolution, and despite what you might think, most students know little about Napoleon beyond the dubious facts that he was “a short French dude” (as any aficionado knows, he wasn’t short, and he wasn’t really French). Thus the sheer volume of battles and wars is like polar bear swimming, and even the best students can have difficulty navigating things. It is at this moment that the approach of the individual instructor becomes extremely important: either you structure classes such that students can work their way to the big picture and big ideas, or you fall back on minutiae such as where each corps commander was in a given battle. Well, except Davout. ALWAYS know where Davout was. Even in 1813…

But I digress. Anyway, this particular lesson came just over half way through the Napoleon block, and my goal was two-fold. First, guide my students through a Socratic chain of reasoning, building the next question on the preceding question, so that they can work through a complex, sweeping argument. Second, and this was the big “reveal” at the end of class, to help them understand, in some measure, why Clausewitz felt that he had to begin with that most basic question, “What is war?”

So, here are the questions that they had to work through:

1. What is the point?

2. What does victory look like?

3. Who is the enemy?

4. Can you defeat the enemy?  …hold that thought for a moment.

5. How *could* you defeat the enemy?

6. Are these ways of defeating the enemy sustainable?

7. Can you break the enemy’s will to resist?

8. Now, can you defeat the enemy?

9. If you can’t, then why are you using military force?

10. Are failures in war failures of policy, strategy, or operations?

And then, the two bonus questions:

11. Or, are they due to the nature of war?

12. What is war?

To break these down somewhat:


I greatly enjoy Geoffrey Wawro’s work. His writing is crisp, his arguments clear, his learning deep but lightly worn. His study on the Austo-Prussian War of 1866 is spectacularly good, though perhaps too hard on the Austrians and I’m still partial to Gordon Craig’s old study of Koeniggraetz.  In this post, I want to focus on his 2000 volume Warfare and Society in Europe 1792 – 1914, which I have used very successfully in teaching, and intend to use again.

First of all, the book is pitched at just the right level for undergraduate teaching, and is a great reference for grad students as well (though of course the bibliography needs updating after nearly 15 years). The chapters are anywhere from 18 to 36 pages, rendering them ideal for subject overviews that also state arguments for class discussion.

Despite the opening date of 1792, Napoleon and the French Revolution do not dominate the narrative so much as explain and contextualize the century of war-making that followed. The chapter is 23 pages, leaving enough time to identify the salient points of the Revolution and Napoleon’s impact on the art of war. In particular, Wawro deftly shows how social, tactical, and political issues cannot be considered in isolation from each other, as too many histories of Napoleonic warfare. The character of warfare was changing, as Dennis Showalter has argued began during the Seven Years War. “Civilians,” writes Wawro, “were drawn inexorably into the fighting and brutally sacrificed. Methods of strategy and tactics also change” (5).  Crucially, Wawro asks “How did Napoleon keep French-occupied Europe and the multinational Grande Armée going?” (16)  Another subtext of the chapter (and in some measure of the book) is the theme of “modern war,” which term crops up throughout the Napoleon chapter. speaking of the Battle of Borodino in 1812, he says, “Here at last was modern war: mass armies and mass slaughter, with no immediately apparent result. (Of course the fact that fewer than 80,000 men were injured by 2.09 million projectiles indicated just how far ‘modern war’ had yet to go to become truly modern.)” (20) Statements like this make the book a gold mine for teaching, as they present students with positions to argue for or against–and, full disclosure, there are many points throughout the book with which I disagree. But that’s part of the pleasure of using the book in the classroom.

Slightly less successful, in my opinion, is the chapter assessing Napoleon’s legacy, “Restoration and Revolution, 1815-49,” but that is due to two factors. First, every military historian has his or her opinions on Clausewitz and Jomini, and it will be a cold day in Hades when you can find two who agree in every particular. So, I have a different and somewhat less critical interpretation of Jomini, and indeed a less polarized picture of Jomini’s position viz-a-viz Clauswitz. Second, and partly the cause of the first point, the most incisive analysis of the Napoleonic legacy is, in my opinion, Hew Strachan’s European Armies and the Conduct of War, which actually does not take as its starting point the opinion that Clausewitz somehow grasped an “essential truth” of “modern war” that Jomini had missed. That, I think would be to give Clausewitz too much prescience, and Jomini too little. Rather, I prefer Strachan’s argument that Jomini better fit the cultural and social world of post-Napoleonic Europe.  This aside, the chapter discusses technological advances and the utility of force in post-1815 conflicts that should lead to great classroom discussions.


I hadn’t meant to start my series  “The Clausewitz Chronicles” with a post of this nature. Linear, progressing through the book, that was my thought.  But certain passages scattered throughout parts of the volume began to coalesce into a discrete topic, and the sprawling thoughts below are nearly a short article in length.

Clausewitz seems to be as popular today as he has ever been. Which is something, if you stop to think about it. After all, for a theorist’s work to be valued as highly as is Clausewitz’s, to be used as the basis of so many operational and professional platforms nearly two centuries after it was first written, is remarkable. Please note, I’m not referring, in the main, to historical studies that aim to read Clausewitz in terms of his contemporaries (which would be my approach should I ever have to teach a course on the subject). I’m referring to works such as Willmott and Barrett’s Clausewitz Reconsidered (2009), which asks if On War is still relevant to current military planning; to Sumida’s Decoding Clausewitz (2008), which values the text for treating of “important military questions,” and which has advocates a particular relationship between theory and history which has heretofore proved elusive.[1] I’m referring to van Creveldt’s article, decrying Clausewitz for discounting the “laws of war” in his lengthy discussion of war itself, and Howard’s  “Very Short Introduction,” which however does treat Clausewitz in a more historical vein. The Prussian theorist himself has come under fire more recently from CGSC professor and career soldier Stephen Melton, whose book The Clausewitz Delusion (2009) credits to a misguided affection for On War many of the U.S. military problems in Iraq and Afghanistan (not sure how much I buy that, though there are some points in favor of that thesis). Whether you love him or hate him, Clausewitz is not going away.

[Note: My edition of On War is the Everyman’s Library edition of the Howard/Paret/Brodie translation, and has a different pagination than the older editions]

As a military historian whose first area of specialization is medieval warfare, however, I have wondered at the applicability of On War to medieval warfare in particular, and to pre-Napoleonic conflicts in general.  Gillingham perhaps said it best, when, in concluding his analysis of Richard I’s generalship, he said that “[i]n these circumstances a Napoleonic or Clausewitzian Niederwerfungsstrategie made little sense.”[2] Of course, Gillingham prefaces this sentence with some remarks on the superiority of defense over offense in medieval warfare, which as we all know is a basic premise of Clausewitz’s study (VI:chapters 2  and 3).  Many would be quick to point out that this factor alone is a great example of Clausewit’z utility in analyzing past conflicts—Rogers, for example, invokes Clausewitz’s idea of the “positive aim” in his discussion of Vegetian warfare.[3] But a multiplicity of accurate observations does not justify a text’s use as a paradigm of evaluation. (more…)